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Children’s Hearings System: a brief introduction

Watch Graham McPheat as he talks about the Children's Hearings System in Scotland.
OK, well, good afternoon everyone. Thanks for coming along. My name is Graham McPheat. I’m a lecturer in the School of Social Work and Social Policy here at the University of Strathclyde. And the focus of my session this afternoon is just a brief introduction to the Children’s Hearings System in Scotland. So just to tell you a little bit about the foundation of the Children’s Hearings System, it was developed in the 1960s, coming out of work that was happening at that time and came into being in 1971. The background to it was there was concern about the way that the juvenile court systems at that time were responding to and dealing with children and young people.
A committee was set up, the Kilbrandon committee was set up to look into this. They made a number of recommendations which were turned into legislation and actioned and policy. And all children and young people under the age of 16 and some under the age 18 began to be responded to via the Children’s Hearings System when there was care and protection issues. So it assumed that responsibility that had previously been taken by juvenile justice courts. Lord Kilbrandon, he was in charge of the committee. And some of the principles which underpinned the decisions became known as the Kilbrandon Principles. There’s a whole long list of them. I’ve not listed them all here.
I’ve just got kind of a couple of kind of main highlights. And probably the top one is most important. Because the principle that underpinned the System was young people that commit offences and young people that have got care and protection needs essentially need the same sorts of services. It’s the same population. So to respond to them the best way is to have one system to respond to them all, as opposed to one system that deals with justice and one system that deals with welfare. So it was about one system. And this one system should be about welfare, not punishment. It should be about the needs of the young people, rather than the behaviour or deeds.
And it should always be about being in the best interest of the child. Because previously there was a concern that that wasn’t always the case with the System. And it is useful at this point just to note as well that the main concern at this time in the 1960s was with juvenile delinquency, as it was known as. That was deemed to be the big issue that we were trying to respond to. So it came into being in 1971.
Like any system that’s been about from for more 40 years, it’s had to respond to changes, political changes, social policy changes, and also legislation changes with the Children Scotland Act 1995, other significant things like European Convention on Human Rights, the Human Rights Act. But perhaps most significantly recently, the Children’s Hearings Scotland Act 2011. So forty years on, there was legislation, an attempt to bring up to date and modernise the System for 21st century Scotland.
So how does the process work? What does the Children’s Hearings System involve? Well, there’s a body know as SCRA, the Scottish Children’s Reporters Administration. And any child or young person who’s deemed to be in need of care or protection, a referral can be made to SCRA. Now anybody can make a referral. It could be a family member. It could be a member of the public. It could be professionals involved, so it could be a social worker, a teacher, a health professional, the police. And it could be the child or young person themselves. Once that referral goes into SCRA, SCRA have got a responsibility to investigate it. And the way they do that is via children’s reporters.
Children’s reporters are trained, employed professionals. And at that point, their job is to investigate the referral and to make a decision about whether a Children’s Hearings needs to happen or not. And the way they do that, quite simply, is by talking to the people involved in the lives of the children and young people. So it might be social workers, and it might be teachers, and it might be health professionals. They may even talk to children and the family at that point. And they make a decision. Are there grounds to proceed to a healing or not? And if there’s grounds to proceed with a hearing, that’s what happens. I’ll tell you about that in a minute.
But I’ll just say that even if they make the decision not to proceed to a hearing, they may make a recommendation that the child may benefit from some sort of voluntary or non-statutory involvement of some services. But if they make the decision that the grounds do exist, then we proceed to a hearing. Now again, there’s a long list of grounds for referral, OK, possible grounds. And I’ve not listed them all here. But it’s fair to say that the common theme running through all of the grounds that exist are when the young people concerned are deemed to be vulnerable. They need the care. They need the protection. And that runs through all the grounds for referral.
And the one at the top of list there, likely to suffer serious harm to health or development through lack of parental care, so this strong sense of kind of risk and vulnerability. Other grounds for referral involve not attending school without reasonable excuse, beyond the control of parents and carers. There’s other grounds in there about offences and other such behaviour. But if the reporter decides that any of these grounds exist, then we move to a hearing. So what does a hearing involve? Well, the hearing is essentially a meeting. It’s a meeting involving all the people involved in the life of the child or the young person.
And they consider the circumstances that the child has experienced and make a decision based on the best way forward in terms of what’s going to be best placed to meet their care and protection needs. This is a list of people who might be involved and attend a hearing. It’s quite a long list and often there won’t be half as many people there, OK. But who will always be there will be the reporter at the top there that I’ve mentioned, children’s reporter who guides the process, the panel members. I will just pause for a second. Because I’m going to say something about them in a minute. And then there’ll be the child and other significant adults in their life.
So it might be parents, family members, social workers, teacher, health professionals, anybody else involved in the life of the child or young person. And the child may have a legal representative there as well. Now to go back to the panel members for a second, the Children’s Hearings System in Scotland is unique. It’s quite different to the approach taken in a number of other countries. Part of that uniqueness, is what was mentioned earlier, in terms of one approach to children who have got care and protection issues and children who have committed offences. And they’ve been dealt with via the one system. This is another unique part of it, the panel members. Because panel members are not paid. And they’re not professionals.
They are lay members of the community who volunteer. Now there is a selection and a training process. But nonetheless, they are lay members of the public and three panel members attend every hearing. And it is those three panel members that make the ultimate decision as to what happens to the child. And that is unique to the process in Scotland. If you look around the world internationally, these sorts of decisions would more commonly be taken by courts, by judges, by trained professionals. This is one of the unique features of the Scottish system.
So the panel happens. The discussion takes place. And there may also be consideration of reports. Any professionals would be asked to submit reports in advance for the panel members to read. And likewise, the voice of the child should be strong and central within this process as well. So the child will be asked or offered the opportunity to either submit a written report. And they’ll be certainly be encouraged to speak at the meeting, and if they didn’t feel able to do that for themselves, somebody to speak on their behalf. But once the panel members have decided they’ve got all the information that they need, they proceed to making a decision.
And essentially, they’ve got three main types of decisions that they can make. One is that they decide there’s no need for further action. And they discharge the case. But similar to earlier on when the reporter’s got a decision about whether to proceed to a hearing, they may say, no further action. But it would be to benefit of the child if there was some ongoing, voluntary, non-statutory services put in place. The second decision is that they may decide that they don’t have enough information to make a decision at that time. And they defer, they continue the hearing. And it’s reconvened at quite a quick date so they can move on from that.
And they may make some interim conditions in the meantime. The third and the most significant outcome is they decide that there are grounds for something needs to happen. There needs to be a compulsory supervision order here. And that may mean an order in relation to where the child or young person stays, or who they have contact with. So some orders may involve a child or young person being placed to live with another family member or in foster care, residential care, a residential school, or perhaps in the most extreme end of the spectrum, secure care. And who they may have contact with, it might be mandatory contact with a social worker or a social work type service.
These are some of the decisions that the Children’s Hearings panel members can make.
Now, the Children’s Hearings System has a huge task is dealing with a huge number of referrals and a huge number of children year on year, although interestingly, for the last seven years, the total number of children and the total number of referrals coming into the System has come down year on year. But what we see for the most recent statistics of 2013-14, just over 19,000 children being referred to the Children’s Hearings System. But when we break this down by care and protection as opposed to offence grounds, there’s a really interesting statistic jumps out at us.
And that is the fact that the vast majority of children who have been referred to the System now are on care and protection grounds, rather than offence grounds. And that’s really significant if you think back to when we said 40 years ago when the System was first put in place. Because the concern at that time was about juvenile delinquency. It was about offending behaviour. So the System was created to respond to that. But 40 years on, it’s been asked to deal with something quite different in terms of the vast majority of referrals coming through. And that sums up the main challenges that the System faces today. And we’ve known this for a little while.
Go back to 2003, there was a review of the System initiated by NCH Scotland. And back then in 2003, they were recognising this disparity between care and protection grounds and offence grounds. And see this is a challenge to the System, because it wasn’t necessarily set up to do that. And it creates this tension in terms of a welfare approach or a justice approach. And we can’t think about this and not link in the politics of youth crime, youth crime as a subject which politically, socially, causes a lot of angst and a lot of debate. There’s a lot of concern about this, and rightly so.
But even just flicking back to the figures on the slides before, what the Children’s Hearings System is predominantly dealing with is not youth crime. It’s about care and protection issues. And every year when these statistics come out, the headlines in the newspaper will be about the couple of thousand children who have been referred for committing offences. And for a number of people within the System, and working in the System actually, their main concern will be not that we’ve got these young people committing offences. Yes, that is a cause for concern. But the fact that we’ve got thousands and thousands of more children and young people being referred on care and protection grounds and the risk and vulnerability that they experience.
And that’s one of the biggest challenges that the Children’s Hearings System has as it moves forward. Thank you.

In this talk Graham delivers an introduction to the Scottish Children’s Hearings System.

He provides some brief background about the origins of the System and how it came into being, the principles upon which it was founded, details of how the System works and who is involved in it, the most common reasons why children and young people may find themselves attending a Hearing, statistics concerning the numbers and types of cases the System is currently dealing with and finishes by reflecting upon some of the challenges the System faces as we move forwards.

All the material in the course was created prior to the publication of the Independent Care Review which was published in early 2020. The Children’s Hearing System was considered within this. In the final publications it was noted that “The Care Review has heard a variety of experiences of The Children’s Hearing System….some positive and others less so”. It went on to say that “Despite the difficulties of the system the Care Review has heard significant support for, and commitment to, the underlying principles of Kilbrandon that, when introduced in the 1960s, shifted Scottish children’s policy”. These will be issues that we can discuss more in the Live Stream Event on Friday 11 September.

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